I am very excited about a fun campaign we're running at work called "Summer is Short. Read a Story." Celebrating much-beloved but hard-to-sell short story collections for the summer months got me thinking about two books I finished recently: Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge and Gil Adamson's Help Me, Jacques Cousteau. Both books contain a series of linked short stories that have female protagonists: the former centred around an aging (and then retired) 7th grade teacher (the Olive Kitteridge of the book's title) and the latter around the ever-growing Hazel. Authors Adamson and Stout (who just won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge), while different in terms of their style and substance of their stories, have uncanny talents for characterization. They can sum up a character -- their habits, their emotions, their intentions -- often with just one heartbreaking sentence that seems to epitomize good writing. It's something I admired while reading both books over the past week.
Olive Kitteridge lives in a small-town in Maine, her husband was a pharmacist and her son grows up to be a podatrist, and neither truly lives up to her expectations. People in town are as kind to Olive as they are critical, and she's a presence in every single story, whether it's from the point of view of her husband or her neighbour. Each perspective adds a little bit more to her character, unravelling Olive like an onion until the final sentences of the book open her up to the core.
Echoes of small-town life can be found in Gil Adamson's stories as well, Hazel, who we see grow up from a young girl into a young woman, copes with the pressures of family life. Whether it's crazy uncles, oddish grandparents, fathers who can't stop tinkering or mothers who feel that they made a wrong turn somewhere, she grows up with a wild and unwieldy cast of characters who inevitably shape who she is as a person.
My reaction to both of these books was emotional -- I fell a little bit in love with these two main characters, Hazel for her rough and tumble time with adolescence and the pains that accompany growing up, and Olive for her tough-talking, no-nonsense approach to life that ultimately ends up alienating her from so many people that she loves. Modern life bleeds so many different colours, from rationalizing long-term relationships, their success or failure, from expectations we have for ourselves and how they change to the complex relationships between parents and children, and these two works explore these themes with a keen and affecting eye for detail and determination.
Highly recommended reads.
READING CHALLENGES: Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is the 12th title I've read for the latest Canadian Book Challenge. And, well, Olive Kitteridge is an award winner so maybe I'll create a new challenge for those, unless on already exists?
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I've started Denis Johnson's Nobody Move, Frances Itani's Leaning, Leaning Over Water and am halfway through Sarah Waters's latest novel, The Little Stranger. But Vanity Fair also beckons -- somehow I can't resist spoiled rich kids in Sofia Coppolla-inspired photo joints coupled with the Kennedys and more Bernie Madoff revelations. I mean, I'm only human people.